Other than some late-inning drama in New York thanks to a shaky Craig Kimbrel, the divisional series in both leagues fell short of any high-drama. All told, only 14 games of the possible 20 were actually needed to sort out who moves onto their respective LCSs and only four of the 14 were one-run games. Nevertheless, we are lined up for two pretty interesting, and hopefully, highly entertaining series to determine who plays in this year’s World Series.
In the American League, the Red Sox and Astros are pretty much known quantities to most baseball fans. Both teams have been good in recent years, built on strong homegrown talent and further improved with the addition of their respective staff aces.
The Astros of course, are coming off their first-ever World Series victory, and have much of the same cast as 2017, led by All Stars Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa on offense, and anchored in the rotation by veteran Justin Verlander and first-round pick Gerrit Cole. It’s a formidable, though mostly well-known, roster.
Boston’s roster is similar to Houston’s, in that the 108-win Red Sox team is largely the same roster that won the division in 2017. The only major piece the Red Sox added last offseason was J.D. Martinez, who after a 46-homer and .330-average season, was discussed at length over the summer and into the fall as a strong and credible AL MVP candidate.
As happens every year however, baseball fans throughout the country get to bask in the glow of new players --- players who likely had good years, but do not have the star power of some better-known players. This year is no exception, and the 2018 NLCS gives some of these lesser-known players an opportunity to shine in the spotlight of primetime.
In the National League, there is a bit of a David versus Goliath narrative, with the Dodgers’ $200 million payroll taking on the Brewers’ $108 million payroll. Despite the financial disparity, both teams bring some new names to the this year’s LCS; namely, players who likely were not the topic of water cooler conversations throughout the year, but who were instrumental in both teams success to this point. With both the central and west divisions going down to a game-163, it’s highly likely that if these players did not perform well, a second-place finish would have been more likely than a first place finish.
Since it has been seven years since the Brewers made the playoffs, it is not surprising their roster is entirely turned over; to put that into perspective how long it’s been since the Brew Crew was in the postseason, the Astros were still in the National League Central, and finished 40 games out of first place with a 56-106 record.
At this point most baseball fans have heard of Christian Yelich, even if they haven’t seen too much of him in the spotlight. The rumblings of his MVP-caliber season carried him into the playoffs, and he’s carrying a nearly 1.200 playoff OPS into the NLCS, to go along with a full season 1.000 OPS. Yelich hit 36 home runs this year, got on base at a 40 percent clip, and led all National League batters in fWAR, earning over one full win more than the second-closest position player.
Yelich has always been a star...but coming from Miami, a less-known-star. Ironically, moving from flashy Miami to often-overlooked Milwaukee has done wonders for his reputation due to the success of this year’s Brewers.
Milwaukee earned home field advantage throughout the National league playoffs by edging out the Cubs in a game-163 late last month. Obviously it wasn’t just Yelich who helped propel Milwaukee to 96-wins. Lorenzo Cain posted another good season, but we know Cain’s story from his impact play in the Royals back-to-back World Series appearances. For the sake of this piece, Cain is too well-known to consider.
Enter Jesús Aguilar and Josh Hader.
Jesús Aguilar is so lesser-known, that despite making the National League All Star roster, one ESPN announcer referred to him as Jesús Aguilera in the NLDS. His 35 home runs was only one behind the most for his position...though most baseball fans probably couldn’t even tell you what position that is...it’s first base.
As usual, FanGraph’s Jeff Sullivan was ahead of the curve, writing this detailed analysis of Aguilar’s strong first-half, back in mid-July. That piece concentrated more on what Aguilar had done to that point, and how unexpected it was for the Brewers to get that type of production at such little cost.
Aguilar is a slugger in the classic sense. He mashes home runs at an above average clip, but his strikeout rate was the worst among all qualified National League first basemen this year. With a 10.2 percent walk rate, Aguilar managed to post a respectable .352 on-base percentage, but he’s an average fielder, with average speed, who manages to hit a lot of home runs. No one would be surprised if he hits a dinger or two in the LCS, if they come at opportune times, they could carry some serious wins-probability-added weight.
On the other side of the ball for Milwaukee, is Josh Hader, whose near-50 percent(!!) strikeout rate brought him a decent amount of attention throughout the year, as well as his first-ever All Star game selection. Hader primarily relies on a 95 MPH fastball, complemented by a nasty slider. Over the course of the season, he generated a 54 percent whiff per swing on his slider, and a 36 percent whiff-per-swing on his fastball.
While it might be difficult to get overly excited about a middle reliever throughout the course of a 162-game season, Hader will likely be called upon in high-leverage situations in the NLCS. As a left-handed reliever, Hader will undoubtedly will have some showdowns with the Dodgers’ left handed-hitters. It’s probably not welcome news for Joc Pederson (19.2 percent strikeout rate), Max Muncy (27.2 percent), and Cody Bellinger (23.9 percent).
The Dodgers have largely the same roster as last year’s NL Championship squad, but two impact players joined the big league team from the minor leagues that have not made too many national headlines. Max Muncy and Walker Buehler.
Despite playing in only 137 games, Max Muncy tied Freddie Freeman to lead all MLB first basemen in fWAR, posting 5.2 wins. Muncy’s emergence was mostly unexpected, as he had not been ranked as a highly touted prospect in nearly half a decade. He was a fifth round pick by the Oakland A’s in 2012, and ended up on the Dodgers only after Oakland released him unconditionally last year.
This season, Muncy posted a-near-.400 OBP, and led the Dodgers with 35 home runs (the second-most on the team was 25 by Bellinger and Pederson). Muncy bats left-handed but throws righty, and did not show signs of major platoon splits in 2018. Expect his power bat to have an impact at some point in the NLCS.
No team has pitching depth like the Los Angeles Dodgers. With a strong front-of-the-rotation with Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, LA’s backend includes the likes of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alex Wood, all serviceable starters. A sneaky-good player that has been underrated most of the year however, is 24-year-old rookie Walker Buehler.
Buehler had a rough start against the Braves, earning the ‘L’ in the only Dodgers’ loss in the LDS. However, despite a forgettable five run / five inning performance, Buehler proved throughout the year, particularly in a grueling stretch run, that he can handle the better teams in the NL. Over his last four starts down the stretch against three contenders (two games against Colorado, one against Arizona, and the other against the Cardinals), he tossed a combined 26 ⅔ innings, only giving up two runs.
The tandem combination of Buehler and Alex Wood could potentially give the Brewers fits, particularly if Buehler is on his game and works into the sixth, or even the seventh inning. LA’s bullpen struggled mightily for much of the year, relying on their starters may be the key to winning back-to-back pennants.
Hopefully the LCSs will provide more late-night entertainment than the LDSs did, but either way, there are plenty of new players to watch, and get acquainted to, especially in the National League. it would be fun to see one of these lesser-known stars make their mark in baseball history with an historic performance.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano